“Aikido Teaching Styles… Evolutionary or Decadent?, by Charles Warren

“One motivation to learn a martial art is to have
some response to that beyond accepting victimhood.”

In favor of evolutionary a commentator could say, “O-Sensei didn’t teach that way at Hombu in his old age, nor did his son, who managed during his lifetime and led after his passing. Besides, that old style is arcane, choppy, and borders on being dangerous to all involved. Flow is more compassionate and suitable for the modern world. We aren’t a militaristic society. We aspire to peace. After all, didn’t the Founder say something about love? What’s loving about a poke in the face or breaking somebody’s bones?”

In favor of decadent, I could reply, “O-Sensei didn’t teach much at Hombu. His appearances were more in the way of demonstrations. It is true that ‘Hombu style’ defines aikido today in that the Doshu presides and teaches at Hombu. Hombu awards certificates of rank and sets standards. However in the Founder’s time, as today, Hombu style is not the unique interpretation of the art. At the Founder’s passing, even before, there were teachers who branched off to promote their personal interpretations of what they learned from O-Sensei, or through aikido practice. Saito Sensei, for many reasons, kept a divergent style affiliated with Hombu and the Ueshiba family. Iwama style is generally associated with kihon waza, which can justly be accused of rigidity. That’s its role. Iwama style is not limited to kihon waza. Sufficient knowledge of kihon waza allows progression to ki no nagare, which has a great resemblance to Hombu Style. As for danger, America, despite the mockery of its detractors is not a particularly militaristic society, at least not in the same sense as prewar Japan. It is, however, a randomly dangerous and violent place. One motivation to learn a martial art is to have some response to that beyond accepting victimhood. There are two kinds of peace which can come from conflict. One is internal a serenity of being associated, almost tangentially, with either victory or defeat and possibly associated with the sense of Shiva’s dance. The other peace, of course, is the resolution of whatever conflict was involved. Watch this: “Somebody picked the wrong girl!”

What has surprised me in the cases of my experience is that while all of the usual repertory of nasties have been available, they haven’t actually come into play. They might have, but in the particular cases I would have WANTED to employ them rather than NEEDING to employ them in order to continue. To interpose my wishes in that way would probably have impeded my progress through the situation. That state of engagement might be what Saito Sensei referred to as “Takemusu Aiki.” He regarded that as the goal of study and his system a method of attaining it. There are people who have survived falls from altitude without parachutes. To jump from beginning in a dojo to Takemusu Aiki directly is approximately, my opinion, a likelihood of about the same order of magnitude.


  1. Don Duffery says:

    I think greatest failing Aikido practitioners has is the lack of understand of the World War 2 generals and other higher ranking officers mentality of how these commanders behaved during the war. Once that is understood it is clear why Osensei thought as he did. It is important to know history.

    • There is a haze of self-induced amnesia in Japan regarding WWII. It would be interesting to penetrate that to ascertain why O Sensei chose to retire to Iwama when he did. It is tempting to imagine that the Doolittle Raid informed his decision.

      • Jason Scott says:

        Glad someone said this. It is pretty typical for a Japanese to go from one extreme, particularly in one direction. There are many historical instances of this, and herald are those in bugei, where bushi, samurai, etc. have pushed themselves to a the limits of ambition and then did a 180 becoming pillars of spiritual piety. O’Sensei seems to have followed in cultural suit. It is highly likely, being a Japanese who embraced the samurai culture, molding himself to become a herald warrior, as talented as he was, had seen the writing on the wall. Thus, he moved to the spiritual extreme as it was one of two acceptable options allowed for by the permissions of the samurai and Japanese cultures. Yes, I feel it is a strong indication of the importance of the Doolittle Raid or something similar that played a part in O Sensei’s decision.

  2. Well said!
    I wonder what o’sensei would have thought of the different styles? Could one imagine the great master seated in seiza, watching Aiki, Kokikai, Shin Shin Toitsu, etc etc.? Would he change what he saw or would he smile and approve?

    I have seen written (apologies for not being able to quote directly) that, there is no teaching manuel for Aikido, due to the continued change of not only the world but of the art itself.

    I hope one day personal opinion can be put aside (even mine) and there can be one alliance for all styles one federation. And again we can learn from each other.

    • “…one day personal opinion can be put aside (even mine) and there can be one alliance for all styles…” That would be wonderful, and may remain a dream. I have to look at my own training motives and baggage fairly frequently. Rivalry is never far from the surface when you bring martial artists together. Finding a stronger common thread is not easy when, fundamentally, everybody wants to be a victor.

  3. bill bramble says:

    All this talk about rivalry, styles, approval, superiority, motives, evolutionary or decadent. There is a lack of philosophical content here of what almost all martial arts should be about. We use what is most useful to us, physically. Yet we should all strive for internal improvement, and a life long search for refining ourselves. Spirit and soul.

  4. Charles Humphrey says:

    I have to make one qualification to your comment about the difficulty of getting people to find common thread and wanting to “be a victor.” I find what you say to be true with things like Aikido or Taiji or other such “non-competitive, non-contact (in a sense)” training methods where people can quite happily fester without having their self-delusions challenged (and we’ve all got ’em.)

    I find people who have gone through something like boxing or even something similar to Aikido like Systema where you are frequently on the receiving end of at time painful strikes are much easier going than people who’ve never done this kind of work. I think the problems come when people deep down inside know they’re deluding themselves but aren’t willing to face up to it and then they feel very threatened and hostile towards other people. I’ve trained with loads of people used to heavier contact and they are totally chilled out because they’d had their asses handed to them plenty of times (if they’re any good) and are over the whole “champeen of the world” bullshit. On the other hand, I’ve met loads of strictly Taiji or Aikido types who are just glowering with repressed hostility and defensive condescension who insist on dismissing EVERYONE they train with as “no good” or “too stiff” or “too aggressive” or “the wrong style” or whatever BS they decide justifies dismissing their perceived threat.

    Most good martial artists I’ve met who both appreciate the value of subtle technical work like Taiji or Aikido but aren’t afraid to bang about a bit with a friend don’t give a damn who your teacher was or what lineage you’re from, all they want to know is if you have any new training insights you can share or what kind of work they can do with you. You think boxers or military trainers have ongoing debates about which style is best and form into all sorts of little cliques that insist that everyone else is not “the real thing?” They’ve got better things to do, like learn new things and keep improving. Folks who can’t take this attitude need to take a long hard look at why they got into this stuff in the first place.

  5. Charles Humphrey says:

    Actually, to add a little postscript, this has always been the great paradox to me in the martial arts in my experience. A good chunk of the largely well-educated, professional Aikido community harps on all day about harmony and ki and blending and put on airs of insincere forced etiquette masquerading as mutual respect while holding secret contempt for folks from other styles (nevermind people who are brutish enough to practice something OTHER than Aikido…the bloody savages) to the extent that you’ve got these massive schisms within the community and a generally arrogant attitude towards the rest of the martial arts world. I mean sorry to be a bit critical folks, but you’ve got a fair number of “great masters” who harboured personal animosities well into old age because some folks wanted to try different exercises or disagreed about where to put your thumb in a wrist lock. Then you’ve got these rough-and-tumble young hothead boxers who travel around bashing the crap out of each other and then hug and go get drunk together and sloppily complement each other’s style and insist that they’ll have to bash the crap out of each other again some time because they had so much fun doing it and like each other so much.

    No joke I’ve found more harmony in a dank concrete floor boxing gym with a bunch of poorly educated teenagers and twenty somethings who are in and out of jail than I’ve found in all the fancy hakama-wearing mutual admiration societies I’ve visited combined. And to make it worse, most of the boxers I’ve met, if you ask them what they think of Taiji or something like that will say something like “yeah, I heard it can really help you loosen up and improve your power, why you know somebody who teaches it? Maybe next time you call me up and I can come check it out, I’ve been wanting to try that stuff for a while.” Seriously folks, think about this for a second.

  6. Curt J Schad says:

    When I first started Aikido in 1970 as a young teenager I was told by my teacher (who was a student of O’sensei) that Aikido is a living art. Meaning you study until you become Shodan than you start learning what works best for you. This makes new ways to get to the same ends and makes the art endless in ways to do techniques. The highest way of Aikido is to win without conflict.

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